Special to The News & Advance
After the U.S. Forest Service announced a plan in October to log 1,000 acres and burn 4,432 acres in the George Washington National Forest near the Pedlar Reservoir watershed, 61 citizens submitted comments, many raising concerns about Lynchburg’s drinking water supply and damaging natural habitat.
In response, the Forest Service removed 115 acres of logging from the plan, but some residents believe their comments are falling on deaf ears after the Forest Service deemed many comments “non-substantive.”
In the newly published draft environmental assessment, the Forest Service reduced the “regenerative harvest” from 753 to 608, removing 11 parcels from the sprawling plan, “to mitigate impacts to various resources that include but are not limited to Old Growth Forests, Heritage Resources, Visual Resources, and Riparian Corridors.”
Dubbed the Pedlar River North Vegetation Project, the 12,073-acre area is located east of Buena Vista along the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Parkway, west of Oronoco, south of Clark’s Gap and north of the Lynchburg Reservoir in Amherst County.
The project is designed to meet “desired conditions” outlined in the 2014 Revised Forest Plan for the George Washington National Forest, including the creation of an early successional forest for some wildlife species, including turkey, grouse, deer and bear.
The Forest Service does not consider whether there is adequate early succesional forest surrounding the national forest.
The Forest Service proposes 608 acres of regeneration (letting nature take its course after logging), 211 acres of thinning with group selection, and 4,432 acres of prescribed burning. About 3 miles of temporary roads will be built.
The public has until March 11 to comment on the draft environmental assessment.
While several hunters and hunting organizations endorsed the plan, most individuals and environmental organizations registered serious concerns, including Judy Strang, a writer and founder of the Friends of the Pedlar River, who lives near the areas to be logged and burned.
“The best action to protect the reservoir’s water quality is no action at all,” Strang said. “Left alone, mature forest cover is better protection than any ‘best practices’ humans may use in managing that land through timber harvest.”
Though he was unavailable for comment Friday, Tim Mitchell, director of water resources for the city of Lynchburg, said previously that he is generally comfortable with the plan.
Eric Freels, acting district ranger for the Forest Service’s Glenwood–Pedlar Ranger District, wrote in reply to written questions about the plan that “the Forest Service manages the National Forests to meet the diverse needs of people; ensure the health of our natural resources; provide recreational opportunities; manage wildfire; and guard against the threats of invasive species.”
Strang, however, said the Forest Service is sticking with its history of extracting timber from our forests under the guise of helping the natural world.
“Sadly, resource extraction forestry management is the approach that any science in the plan is being made to serve when what we need more than anything else now is a conservation approach,” she said.
“It is an attempt to pretend that managing public lands for timber is also a way to improve forest ecology. It isn’t.”
When asked about the current science that shows that forests work best when left alone to sequester carbon and protect watersheds, Freels wrote: “The Forest Service utilizes the best available science in the decision-making process, both at the project-and plan-level.”
Laura Henry-Stone, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental science and sustainability at the University of Lynchburg, said the best action would be to put the plan on hold.
“It seems that the Pedlar project being proposed reflects an outdated vision of forest management,” she said. “I do think there’s a place for controlled burns and selective harvest. For instance, if we were managing forests specifically for carbon sequestration, there would be particular species and age compositions that we would be aiming for.
“But it all boils down to goals for forest management, and I agree that this project is being driven by significant limitations of the GW-Jefferson National Forest Management Plan as a whole. The best recommendation I could make would be postponing this project until larger strategic goals for national forest management under the new administration can be better defined.
“President Biden’s recent executive orders regarding climate change include goals to conserve at least 30% of our lands and oceans and establish a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative that will include reforestation and carbon sequestration projects. The Pedlar project appears to contradict this vision.”
On Friday, press secretaries for Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine, said their offices would look into the plan.
In comments submitted in October, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation raised concerns about threatened and endangered species, including the James River spinymussel, the green floater (another mussel), the larger purple fringed orchid and the small worled pogonia.
Concerns raised by the Center for Biological Diversity about bats and salamanders were dismissed by the Forest Service because the numbers that would likely be killed by the project are deemed acceptable under federal law.
When asked if the fact that the world has lost 68% of mammals, fish, birds and amphibians since 1970 might be cause for concern for all species, Freels wrote: “The Forest Service follows best management practices and coordinates closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to avoid potential negative impacts of our activities on Threatened, Endangered and Sensitive species.”
According to the environmental assessment, the Forest Service will create or rehabilitate 30 acres of permanent wildlife openings and pollinator habitat improvements, as well as increase James River spinymussel populations pending USFWS approval.
All of the proposed harvesting activities would likely occur over a five- to 10-year period via a series of timber sales and would generate 20,000 CCF of sawtimber and pulpwood, according to the Forest Service.